Podcaster, journalist and mother-of-two Melody Thomas wants to normalise conversations around sex and relationships. She made three seasons of the popular, award-winning podcast BANG! – yep, its name is pretty self-explanatory.
Now she’s back with her new podcast The Good Sex Project, which is about good sex, good relationships and how to have them, as well as social contexts that impact our choices.
Produced by Melody’s company Popsock Media for Stuff, the eight-episode series features insights and advice from national and international experts, including American sex columnist Dan Savage, and author, researcher and sex educator Emily Nagoski. Melody also has candid conversations with New Zealanders of all ages and backgrounds. They’ll discuss real-life sexual and romantic difficulties, and help to find solutions.
The first two episodes are released today. The first ep, ‘Doin’ It For The Yarns’, features Clementine Ford and Emily Nagoski, with a discussion about how ‘New Zealanders have a lot of sex, but a lot of it is average’. Second ep ‘The Glass Closet’ features Australian sexologist and podcaster Chantelle Otten, with a discussion about ‘body image, positive self worth and its impact on our sex and love lives’. The other episodes will drop every week or so until July 9.
Melody talks to Sarah Lang about whether we still get giggly or embarrassed when talking about sex, whether we’re talking about it more – and how all sorts of people have been willing to talk about all sorts of intimate things.
Here’s the first instalment of our two-part conversation!
CAPSULE: Hi Melody! You want to normalise conversations around sex and relationships. Why do you think we don’t talk about these things often, or haven’t historically. Are we conditioned into it?
MELODY: I think we’re conditioned into it. And most of us didn’t have open, schooled-up parents who were ready to talk to us about sex and relationships. Also, a lot of us didn’t necessarily have healthy relationships modelled to us by the adults in our life. We weren’t given any tools to navigate relationships, even though they are one of the biggest and most important things that happen in our lives, with the power to make us profoundly miserable or very happy! So, we can’t know what we don’t know. We’re not taught how to communicate within a relationship. We’re not taught how to argue within a relationship. We’re not taught how to listen within a relationship. We’re not taught how to navigate jealousy and infidelity within a relationship. We’re not taught how to talk about sex. We’re just told ‘find the right person and it will all be okay’ when actually there’s way more to it. So my podcasts aren’t just about sex; they’re also about relationships.
How excited are you about your new podcast The Good Sex Project coming out?
I’m ‘excitedly nervous’ and not sleeping very well this week! I know there are wonderful people and stories in there. So, I just have to trust in that.
What does it cover?
First crushes, experimentation, hook-ups, dating and relationships, coming out, good sex, bad sex, kink, communication, consent, sexual health, self-worth, and the role society, media and porn culture play in shaping our attitudes towards sex, and more. Within each of the eight episodes, I talk to two or three people. So I’ve done 35 interviews or something ridiculous!
You have a few big ‘gets’ including American sex educator Emily Nagoski, Australian feminist and author Clementine Ford, and American sex columnist Dan Savage. Who were you most surprised to get a yes from?
Most surprised: Emily Nagoski because she’s so incredibly busy. The week I reached out happened to be the week that she’d sent her new book to her publisher, and she had this tiny gap in time when she was waiting for feedback.
Dan Savage is maybe the most recognisable name in terms of sex and relationships. I once hunted him down when he was in Dunedin randomly for a one-off event, before BANG! ever started. I just knew I had to find him, and get a microphone in front of him. I was so pregnant, and so tired, which made it the worst interview ever – that was totally on me! But I managed to get two good minutes of audio from that, and since then we’ve maintained a connection. Clementine Ford is incredible; I got to her through our mutual friend Emily Writes – the classic ‘friend-of-a-friend’ thing. Also there’s that bugging-people-until-they-relent thing!
Tell me a bit about your previous podcast BANG! I know you did three seasons, and 21 episodes, which are still available to listen to. How did BANG! begin?
I worked at Radio NZ on and off, and it established a podcast department and sought pitches. I knew I wanted to get into podcasts. I was listening to Savage Lovecast, an American sex-advice podcast by Dan Savage. It dawned on me that there was no New Zealand equivalent – and that something which helps so many people in the U.S. could do the same here. So I thought ‘Melody, you’ve been kind of obsessed with sex your whole life, so of course, if you do a podcast, it will be a sex podcast!’
When you say ‘kind of obsessed’, do you mean talking about it, thinking about it or, as an adult, doing it?
My fascination with this ‘thing’ that people do together has developed and matured from when I was younger. What I’m endlessly curious about now is sex and love as a means of connection for people. That’s what I care about. That, and the many ways that people try, and sometimes fail, to connect. So this is a podcast about sex but a lot of the time it’s also about many other things. It’s about humans trying to feel less alone, be seen, be heard, be loved.
Did you expect BANG! to be as popular as it was?
You always hope that people will listen, but no, I didn’t have any idea! It was a beautiful surprise how much it took off.
With both podcasts, were you surprised by people’s willingness to talk about intimate things?
With BANG! I was really surprised because I thought that would be my greatest challenge. People talk about how New Zealanders are quite bad at talking about sex, so I thought people might take some convincing! I think people are open with me because they have the opportunity to use pseudonyms. Their voices aren’t changed but there’s no camera in their face. An issue early on was that the people who really want to talk about sex aren’t always the people you want on a podcast like this. You want everyday people, who are maybe struggling, who maybe haven’t put words to these things before. But once word was out that that’s the type of story we were after, people were really willing [to talk]. It gave me the impression that even though New Zealanders maybe aren’t traditionally that good at talking about sex, a lot of people wanted the opportunity to talk about it. Many of the people I spoke to had felt really alone and kind of ashamed. There’s also hilarity, learning, and reflection [in our discussions] but shame and embarrassment inevitably do creep in with sex stuff.
Do you think there’s a generational shift from being somewhat prudish to talking about sex more?
Yeah, there’s been a huge shift but I also think that, although we’re getting better in some regards at talking about sex – and about what good sex is supposed to feel like – a lot of people still struggle with making that a reality in their everyday lives. They might feel like they can’t speak up, or that they can’t change the outcome. So, a major focus of the podcast is: how do we empower people to empower themselves?
I still feel giggly and a bit prudish talking about sex!
It takes a lot to make me feel like that now. It used to at the beginning of BANG! When I was very much ‘faking it till I make it’. One of my early interviews for BANG! was with a couple in their seventies. I turned up at their house, they offered me slippers and a cup of tea, so, like, very cute grandma, grandad vibes. Then they were getting quite flirty with each other and I was like ‘do you guys want me to leave?’ They said, ‘no we already did it this morning’. At that moment I was having a ‘fake your chill’ moment, whereas now I would be like ‘get it, grandma!’.
But I got over that [embarrassment]. When people are telling you things and being so vulnerable, you can only respond with understanding and curiosity.
Have you interviewed many people who have a sexless relationship, or very little sex?
We talk a lot in The Good Sex Project about what is a good and healthy amount of sexual intimacy for a couple – the answer is whatever works for you! But I don’t specifically interview anyone struggling with a ‘sexless’ relationship for this series. There’s one beautiful couple with young kids who share their story of moving from a place where they were very emotionally and physically disconnected, to a really beautiful place on the other side – and with a much healthier sex life! I also talk to an asexual individual, for whom no penetrative sex is the perfect amount of sex.
Once, for BANG!, I interviewed a wonderful couple who were really in love, very intimate and connected, but hadn’t had sex in nearly 20 years. But they would have these profound conversations every night, and had lots of affectionate touch that was non-sexual. And I think they were pretty happy with each other. Everyone is different.
You can find The Good Sex Project podcast at nzpod.co.nz/podcast/the-good-sex-project, on Stuff.co.nz, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms. The podcast was made with the support of NZ On Air.
*Photography by Ebony Lamb; makeup by Amy McLennan.
Look out for the second part of this conversation, coming soon.